As Iraq begins recovering from its war against the Islamic State (ISIS), attention is shifting towards the country’s legislative elections, scheduled for May, and the possible political alliances that could emerge ahead of the vote.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a former military man, had been expected, until recently, to carry all before him.
Being prime minister of Iraq is said to be one of the world’s most difficult jobs. Problems tend to pile up. In addition, there is always external pressure, notably in recent years from the United States and Iran, each of which has sought to ensure their preferred candidates win and keep power in Iraq.
Despite these challenges, Abadi seemed to be doing well. He managed the country’s largely victorious campaign against ISIS, recapturing emblematic cities such as Fallujah and Mosul. He recently declared victory against the terror group in a slick media spectacle, which won him domestic and international plaudits.
Abadi presided over a short campaign to take back territory from the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after the latter voted in favour of declaring independence. The Iraqi state retook Kirkuk and forced the KRG back within the borders it occupied before 2014.
All the while, Abadi seems to have kept the Americans, whose focus on the ISIS campaign is nothing if not dogged, happy.
Abadi was expected to win the upcoming elections handily, standing on a platform of patriotic renewal and making extensive reference to recent martial successes. Recent developments have made this seem less likely.
Iraq’s politics are fragmented, with more than 100 parties likely to field candidates in the upcoming elections. They will combine in alliances to channel more influence, but these alliances are not set in stone.
Abdulla Hawez, a researcher affiliated with King’s College London, said: ‘As the negotiations to form alliances for the upcoming Iraqi general elections began, there were quite a few surprises, including an unexpected alliance between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – and Ammar al-Hakim’s party later joined’.
He added: ‘Just two days after the alliance formed, it crumbled due to differences between the different parties leading [the] PMF’.
Chaos has been sustained throughout the preliminary period.
‘The alliances have been changing on a daily basis during the registration for alliances [with] the Iraqi Electoral Commission but, as the deadline approached, the alliances, most notably the one between Haider al-Abadi and PMF, fell apart’, said Hawez.
This leaves Abadi in a less secure position than had been predicted.
Nouri al-Maliki, the former prime minister, rather than allying with Abadi, as was expected, will run for elections in his State of Law coalition, Hawez said.
Muqtada al-Sadr, a man who once led a sectarian Shia militia that acted brutally and caused trouble for the American occupiers of Iraq, argues Hawez, ‘is set to form an alliance with secular and liberal parties, including Iraqi Communist Party’. This is a notable development.
Analysts said Sadr, formerly a firebrand, could become a moderating, cross-sectarian figure. The prospect of these elections has not proven this point, but it has placed Sadr further from religious politics than many expected his background would allow. Ironically, Sadr, a former militia leader, criticised Abadi’s initial decision to ally with the PMF as potentially sectarian.
Because of recent events, Abadi is looking less moderate. His decision to ally with the PMF seemed rash and ill-judged and is likely to enflame sectarian tensions in a country where Shia militias and rogue elements within the armed forces have committed war crimes under the cover of the anti-ISIS campaign.
Hawez noted that those developments ‘have made many question Prime Minister Abadi and his seriousness about combating corruption and taking back Iraq to its old glorious days’.
Hawez said he believed Abadi ‘[still has] a serious chance to depend on his victories against the Islamic State but more importantly on stopping [the] Kurdish move for statehood and successfully regaining the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Kurds’.
Observers should remain cautious. The elections are still not near and what seem like settled truths can change very rapidly.
Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘The key thing to remember about pre-electoral coalitions is that they don’t mean a lot. All the action happens after the election, behind closed doors, when the lists can recombine to ratify the next prime minister.’
‘The story was all about Prime Minister Abadi and how he wanted to present himself in the election – head of Dawa or independent of Dawa. He couldn’t get the first, so he settled for the second’, Knights said.
Knights noted that the linking of Abadi to the PMF ‘immediately raised red flags everywhere – internationally and inside Iraq – and was not necessary (as they can just do it after the election if they still want to)’.
Hawez said two factors would determine whether Abadi will be able to remain prime minister.
‘First, how [many] votes he and his coalition will get versus Maliki and PMU [PMF] coalitions and how much he will be able to form a strong alliance post-election with … Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim and other Sunni and Kurdish parties’, said Hawez.
In the post-election coalition negotiations, Abadi may be able to rely on his war record and political skill, but his temporary dalliance with the PMF may make many, in Iraq and around the world, question his judgement.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.